|Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011|
Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury about her life after 1971 as the country's first woman to enter the Foreign Service.
You were Bangladesh's first woman ambassador. How did this come about?
I was married to Shamsul Haque (who wanted an educated wife), and we had two daughters. By the time the War of Liberation broke out, he was the Superintendent of Police in Chittagong. He supported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They were attacked, and there was terrible fighting on the police line from the 26th to the 29th of March. He was then arrested on April 17, .1971, and I never saw him again.
After the war was over, I met the Relief Minister and he told me not to worry, that I would be getting relief. I was very angry. I had not come for relief. I had everything I needed -- my brain, my hands, legs, eyes, ears, everything was there. I wanted to be utilised to rebuild the country. It was my husband who had laid down his life. It was my responsibility to carry on.
So I organised a group of widows in the same situation, and we went to see Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 18, 1972. Mrs. Budrunnessa Ahmad went with us. Everyone told their story and when my turn came, I told him that relief was not the answer, that all these women were educated and had children to look after. They needed to work and earn a respectable living. Shortly after that, Mr. Rafiqullah Chowdhury called me and told me that I had been posted to the Prime Minister's Secretariat as an Assistant Secretary.
So how did you get to the Foreign Office?
Of course, it wasn't that easy. Women were not allowed in the Foreign Office in the Pakistan time. But Bangabandhu said, "This is not Pakistan anymore. It is Bangladesh." So he signed a document mandating that 10% of all civil service jobs be given to women. Then in April 1972, I was transferred to the Foreign Office.
Were there any women at all in the Foreign Office?
The first person I met was the Foreign Secretary. He got up and opened the door to his office for me when I was leaving and said, "Anytime you come to my office, I have to get out of my chair and open the door for you." But I said; "Sir, don't think of me as a woman, think of me as an officer." He said, "What? Forget that you are a woman?"
Of course, there was no women's toilet, so I had to go to the house of a friend nearby. Later I searched the whole building for a room with an attached bath. I found a small room, where a clerk was sitting, and they gave it to me.
So what was your first position at the Foreign Office?
While I was there, I learned that Australia was looking for guest workers, and when I came back I wrote a memo about the idea of exporting our unemployed workers, with details about which countries needed what kind of workers. Mr. Faruk Sobhan, who was my senior, liked the idea and wrote a three-page report on it. He later supported me when I wanted to go to the United States to get my Master's degree from Fletchers School of Law and Diplomacy -- which I needed to do because some people still thought I was not good enough to be in the Foreign Office.
When I came back, Bangabandhu was dead and they tried to throw me out. But I knew President Zia from the time that he and my husband had been fighting in Chittagong. I rang him up and he called back immediately and said, "How can they throw you out of the Foreign Office? The Prime Minister ordered you to be there." President Zia then procured a copy of the document instructing the service reorganisation office to encadre me when the cadre was formed, and he gave it to me. It had the signature of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Maybe he saw that I was struggling so hard to do something and honoured my effort.
How long did it take until more women joined the Foreign Service?
So you were finally officially inducted into the Foreign Service?
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